France seeks to set Algerian remembrance date

PARIS Thu Oct 25, 2012 9:17am EDT

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PARIS (Reuters) - France made a new attempt on Thursday to fix an annual day of remembrance for those who died in the 1954-62 Algerian war and independence struggles in Morocco and Tunisia that ended more than a century of French colonial rule.

The Socialist-controlled Senate postponed to November 20 a vote on a bill setting the memorial date after a debate with right-wing opponents of the measure overran the allotted time.

The bill, which had gathered dust for 10 years, is expected to be approved next month.

That could mark another step towards warmer relations with Algiers as Paris seeks its backing for an African-led military intervention against Islamist militants in northern Mali.

Although the motion's main aim is to settle a spat over the most appropriate date to remember hundreds of thousands of dead on both sides, it may also be read as a gesture of reconciliation before a planned visit by President Francois Hollande to Algiers in December.

"It is of the utmost importance for us. We've been fighting for this for 50 years," said Guy Darmanin, head of a federation of war veterans who fought in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.

"Inside France it may be controversial, but as far as relations with Algeria go, it should only improve them."

A draft law to mark the March 19, 1962 ceasefire as a day of remembrance was approved in the National Assembly in 2002 but then set aside after opponents, mainly on the right, said it would stir old hatreds and insult colonials who had to flee.

A decade on, 50 years after the war in Algeria ended and with the left now in power in France, Socialist senators dug up the bill and submitted it for a vote in the upper house.

The Socialists have had a majority in the Senate since late last year and a vote in favor will take the proposal into law, given backing from the lower house 10 years ago.

CAT AND MOUSE GAME

Opponents have suggested alternative dates in October or December to mark the end of the Algerian war to allow for the fact that months of bloodshed followed the March 19 peace accord signed in the French town of Evian.

Some said in 2002 that March 19 represented defeat and the loss of French Algeria - comments that if repeated now would embarrass Hollande just as many Algerians hope he may use his December trip to deliver a long-awaited apology for the past.

An Algerian group representing relatives of victims of the war said fixing a day of remembrance would not fulfill the desire in Algeria for a full apology for France's colonial past.

"Instead of recognizing crimes committed during 132 years they have opted for a cat-and-mouse game," said Tayeb Al Houari, secretary-general of Algeria's National Organisation of Children of the Martyrs. "We need France officially to recognize its crimes so as to open a new page."

An apology is a sensitive issue in France where many so-called "pieds noirs" - North African-born Europeans repatriated after independence - and Muslim "harkis", who fought in the French army against Algerian insurgents, oppose the idea.

Hollande has a personal affinity with Algeria, having worked at the French embassy there in 1978. He now needs its support as he pushes for an African-led operation to quash what he sees as a growing threat from al Qaeda-linked militants in Mali.

A strategic regional power, Algeria is not opposing United Nations Security Council attempts to forge an action plan but is concerned about spillover from unrest in its southern neighbor.

In another highly symbolic gesture, Hollande acknowledged last week that Algerians had been massacred at a rally for independence in Paris in 1961, ending decades of official silence over the bloody crackdown. Historians say more than 200 people may have been killed in the police action.

French-Algerian relations were badly scarred by an eight-year conflict often likened to the U.S. war in Vietnam as it triggered violent protests at home and led to the fall of several governments before France withdrew in 1962.

The conflict divided French society and it was not until 1999 that the government recognized it as a war rather than a civil uprising.

(Additional reporting by Emile Picy in Paris and Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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